Radio review of 2019: As RTÉ mourned Gaybo, it was tearing itself apart

The contrast between RTÉ’s obvious disdain for Lyric and indulgent attitude toward 2fm sent out a deeply negative signal

Sean O’Rourke was Radio 1’s strongest performer.

Sean O’Rourke was Radio 1’s strongest performer.

 

In a year when Irish radio, like so much traditional media, continued to face online competition and shrinking finances, the experience of two stations stands out. One, which marked its 40th birthday in 2019, dumped its longest-serving presenter, alienated another star during a much-hyped relaunch, yet failed to stem a declining listenership. The other, which marked its 20th birthday, stuck steadily to its course, maintained a stable line-up and added to its audience.

The latter channel, Lyric FM, was rewarded with threats of closure by fiscally-challenged parent network RTÉ: in the end, the State broadcaster decided to shut down the classical music station’s main studios in Limerick, putting staff at risk and damaging morale. Meanwhile, the other channel, 2fm, having ditched the evergreen Larry Gogan and botched the reshuffling of Jenny Greene during a spring overhaul, has been left comparatively unscathed by the crisis gripping Montrose.

That the appeal of some 2fm presenters was lost on this middle-aged writer may be further vindication of their youth-oriented strategy

The contrasting fortunes of 2fm and Lyric are revealing about how the national broadcaster views its radio mission, as well as how the stations run themselves. In its efforts to attract the ever-fickle youth demographic in the crowded (and to the uninitiated, largely identikit) field of commercial pop stations, 2fm revamped its line-up, recruiting the likes of social media influencer Doireann Garrihy. Notably, the station’s rejigged daytime roster mainly featured female presenters, a welcome development in Irish radio.

While the station’s overall share fell slightly, its headline moves worked. Garrihy’s breakfast show partnership with Eoghan McDermott yielded increased listenership, as did Jennifer Zamparelli’s shift to the mid-morning slot. That the appeal of some 2fm presenters was lost on this middle-aged writer may be further vindication of their youth-oriented strategy. Of more concern may be the fact that far more young listeners tune into local rather than national stations, if they listen to radio at all.

Pleasing hosts

Meanwhile, Lyric kept its older (and smaller) audience sweet by adhering to a playlist of safe classical and unthreatening MOR from pleasing hosts like Marty Whelan and Lorcan Murray. Only the presence of John Kelly and Bernard Clarke in the evenings risked startling the horses with their stimulating musical choices. Overall, it’s not a particularly novel or exciting strategy, but it still managed to slightly increase Lyric’s reach.

Ray D’Arcy continues to cut a slightly lost figure on his Radio 1 afternoon show, more a grab-bag of random stuff than a properly defined programme

But if Lyric and 2fm operated adequately within their own parameters, RTÉ clearly viewed them in zero-sum terms, putting the more specialist – and, surprise surprise, more ostensibly elitist – station on the chopping block. Even allowing that the network is in deep trouble, the contrast between the obvious disdain for Lyric and the indulgent attitude toward 2fm sent out a deeply negative signal. If the State broadcaster can’t be bothered maintaining a rudimentary commitment to its cultural or public-service remit, what hope for any commercial station to take even a vaguely similar path? No wonder even perennially upbeat Lyric presenters like Murray and Liz Nolan were heard voicing dissent at their plight, albeit in genteel terms.

Then again, Lyric fared better than RTÉ’s digital radio channels, which are to be axed en masse. While the likes of oldies station Gold and alternative platform 2XM may only possess, to quote Spinal Tap, selective appeal, their closure robs listeners of choice and diminishes RTÉ’s digital footprint, hardly boding well for the longer term. That news of these plans coincided with the death of Gay Byrne – the man who set the template for Irish talk radio – only added to the glum symbolism. At a time when RTÉ purported to come together to mourn Gaybo, it was tearing itself apart.

Rule the airwaves

Even so, RTÉ Radio 1 continued to rule the airwaves, providing 19 of the country’s 20 most popular shows as well as the most memorable moment of the year in the form of Sean O’Rourke’s astonishing interview with Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey. The hapless TD’s on-air implosion was a career-ending failure of judgment, but the manner in which her car-crash encounter went viral was surely a sign that listeners craved relief from the daily cascade of Brexit news. That said, O’Rourke has thrived in the febrile political atmosphere created by events in Britain and America, while hosting standout items such as his devastating interview with former garda Majella Moynihan. As such, he was Radio 1’s strongest performer.

Others fared less well. Ray D’Arcy, in particular, continues to cut a slightly lost figure on his Radio 1 afternoon show, more a grab-bag of random stuff than a properly defined programme. With RTÉ cutting costs and reducing top salaries, one wonders whether station or presenter are getting the best out of each other.

Overwhelmingly blokey and opinionated as Newstalk is, it has a clear identity which other stations must envy

Still, D’Arcy is a picture of purpose compared to his old home, Today FM, a station without direction. While Ian Dempsey in the morning and Matt Cooper in the early evening act as stable (if differing) bookends, the daytime schedule is divided between the uneven zaniness of Dermot and Dave or the affably generic style of Mairead Ronan, who replaced Muireann O’Connell amid some acrimony but to no great effect. How the station must long for D’Arcy’s old ratings.

Amidst all this, Newstalk was an oasis of stability. Ivan Yates cemented his position as the station’s biggest draw, Pat Kenny remained a solid presence while Shane Coleman and Kieran Cuddihy consolidated their breakfast show partnership. Overwhelmingly blokey and opinionated as Newstalk is, it has a clear identity which other stations must envy. That said, the station still maintains its petty ban of journalists from this paper over an unfavourable article about Communicorp owner Denis O’Brien more than two years ago. Anyone wondering why a robust public service broadcaster in necessary can find their answer there.

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